This past week I finished reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I recommend it.
As nonfiction goes, it's a fairly light and quick read, and interesting: I would rank it with Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating in the pop psychology genre. Like those Wansink describes, some of the psychological experiments that Tierney and Baumeister recount (most of which were designed and executed by others) are interesting and creative. Interesting, creative, and cruel: I really, really felt bad for some of the experimental subjects, who had to do things like
- first, fast for many hours
- then, hungry, be ushered into a waiting room filled with the smell of baking cookies
- sit next to a bowl of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and be told "Those aren't for you, here, have one of these nice crunchy radishes instead"
- finally be given "intelligence tests" which consisted of puzzles that, in fact, had no solution, the point being to measure how long the subjects sweated over them before they gave up trying.
The book also includes material gleaned from a handful of celebrities, either from interviews or from excerpts from memoirs. Not sure why they had to be celebrities, but they do make for interesting stories. How Drew Carey looked at his messy desk, said "Shit, man, I'm rich," and hired David Allen (of Getting Things Done) to work with him as a personal organizer for a year. How Eric Clapton stopped drinking, and speculations as to how AA's "abandon yourself to a higher power" thing can work even for atheists. How performance artist Amanda Palmer maintained composure as a living statue, standing perfectly still for three hours a day even in the face of people trying to anger or amuse her, and how it affected her for hours afterward. There's also a historical discussion of Henry Stanley (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?") and how his memoirs hint that he could maintain discipline -- both of himself and of the men under his command -- through truly horrific conditions.
But the real gem of Willpower is the insights it suggests from research, some of which are surprising -- but which explain a lot. I hinted at this in a blog post I wrote about sticking to your resolutions, which drew on an article written by Tierney, and also you can see a New York Times review of the book here which summarizes it pretty well.
Before getting into the specific insights, though, let's talk about the problem posed by the very idea of "willpower" itself. Some people, to be blunt, believe there is no such thing, pointing to various research findings that convincingly show that we are so often driven by forces of which we are not conscious. Others are wary of bringing up the possibility because it smacks so much of blaming people for the situation they find themselves in, which may largely be because of forces outside their control.
In the obesity research world, there is a lot of evidence out there that "lack of willpower" is not the root reason for much of the obesity problem. Take Gary Taubes's two books, Good Calories, Bad Calories (I reviewed it here) and Why We Get Fat (I reviewed it here, here, here). Both of them make a very convincing case that intractable obesity is caused by a biochemical vicious cycle that is triggered by exposure -- maybe even as early as in utero! -- to a diet of sugars and other refined carbohydrates. The cravings and the difficulty resisting them are both products of broken hormonal signals, according to this model, and so you simply cannot say that obesity can be "fixed" through application of willpower alone to resist the temptation to overeat. From Good Calories, Bad Calories: "Though the traditional response to the failure of semi-starvation diets to produce long-term weight loss has been to blame the fat person for a lack of willpower... [some] have argued that this failure is precisely the evidence that tells us positive caloric balance or overeating is not the underlying disorder in obesity."
So let's stipulate for the purposes that this is true: our decisions to give in, or not to give in, very often come from unconscious processes, or biochemical urges, or explicable impulses. How do Tierney and Baumeister deal with that? And the answer is that they do it through a careful -- and useful -- definition of the terms "will" and "willpower."
The will is to be found in connecting units across time.... Will involves treating the current situation as part of a general pattern... You must treat (almost) every episode [of temptation] as a reflection of a general need to resist these temptations.
That's where conscious self-control comes in, and that's why it makes the difference between success and failure in just about every aspect of life.
The way I read it is this: We may have no conscious and immediate control over the impulses that overtake us, the urges and cravings and temptations. They may come from our environment or from chemical signals inside us. And we may have little conscious and immediate control over the strength of our resistance against those impulses: once the impulse has begun, if we are "caught out," there may be little we can do to fight against them.
But we do have power to predict the impulses that may overtake us in the future, and we can take steps to prepare. We can shape our environment so that they meet us on a battleground we have chosen, or we can avoid meeting them at all. We can also whip ourselves into shape so that we have a better chance at resisting even if we are surprised by our impulses.
That is where the "will" part of "willpower" comes in.
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In a future post, I'll list some of the insights from the book that resonated with me. Some of them, I met with a sense of recognition, as a general form of the specific insights that I discovered for myself during my weight loss and subsequent struggles with maintenance. Finally, I'll discuss how I think people can harness these insights to hammer out a plan of action for personal change.
(I think I can write with some conviction and experience about how to harness willpower to overcome the specific fault of gluttony. What I'd really like to do, though, is figure out how to harness it to overcome faults I'm still mired in. Maybe, through continued writing about gluttony, I can see a way to draw analogies that will create a map to escape from those other faults as well.)